The path was cleared on Sunday for China’s Xi Jinping to rule the country indefinitely as its rubber-stamp parliament passed a constitutional amendment removing presidential term limits.
The amendment was passed almost – but not quite – unanimously, with two “no” votes and three abstentions, against 2,957 in favor. Party members’ loyalty belied a wave of criticism of the move among internet users, a wave which censors have taken care to extinguish. The amendment was revealed by the Communist Party just last month.
The vote reverses the era of “collective” leadership and orderly succession that was promoted by the country’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to ensure stability following the turbulent one-man rule of Communist China’s founder Mao Zedong. It gives Xi almost total authority to pursue his vision of transforming China into an economic and military superpower by the middle of the century.
Delegates to the National People’s Congress, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, applauded after each vote in what comes as China’s first constitutional amendment in 14 years. Had members rejected it, it would have been the first time a party diktat had ever failed to pass.
Xi, 64, has consolidated power since 2012, when he was appointed party general secretary, the country’s top office. The position has no term limits, but his two predecessors both gave it up after two terms as part of the “orderly process” established by Deng.
The presidency is a largely ceremonial office, but the now-abolished constitutional limits meant Xi would have had to give it up in 2023. Before Sunday’s vote, US President Donald Trump had joked that Xi was “now president for life.”
As the holder of the top offices of party, state and military, Xi is also referred to as China’s “paramount” leader; and, in 2016, he was officially designated “core” leader by the party. His accumulation of titles has also earned him the nickname “Chairman of Everything.”
Under Xi’s leadership, China has experienced tighter restrictions on civil society, including detentions of activists and lawyers, and ever-stricter internet controls. Simultaneously, he has purged many officials, and sidelined potential rivals, by means of a relentless crackdown on corruption that seems yet to have run its course.
“Dissenting is becoming riskier. The room for debate is becoming narrower. The risk of a policy mistake could become higher and correcting a flawed policy could take longer”
“I think that during the past five years, he has been carrying out a soft coup, including making the Politburo a mere figurehead,” Chinese political commentator Wu Qiang told AFP, referring to the 25-member Communist Party body one notch under the ruling council.
“He wants to prevent power from falling into the hands of technocrats like Jiang (Zemin) and Hu (Jintao),” Wu added, referring to Xi’s two predecessors.
While attention has focused on the term limits, the amendments also include major provisions that will engrave Xi’s eponymous political mantra in the constitution and hand the Communist Party an even larger role in the country’s affairs.
In a written report, the head of the parliament’s Standing Committee, Zhang Dejiang, said the amendments “will ensure the constitution improves and develops in step with the times and provide a firm constitutional guarantee for upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.”
Yanmei Xie, a China policy analyst for Gavekel Dragonomics in Beijing, said before the vote that: “In the long run, the change may bring some uncertainties, like ‘key man’ risk. Dissenting is becoming riskier. The room for debate is becoming narrower. The risk of a policy mistake could become higher and correcting a flawed policy could take longer.”
Tom Rafferty, China regional manager for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said the amendment made it less likely that a future leadership transition would be an orderly one.
“The amendment generates a level of uncertainty,” he said. “The term limit – while only applying to the lesser role of the state presidency – has also come to shape expectations for the timing of transitions in the leadership of the party and military.”
“Xi Jinping has presided over so many important projects such as economic reforms and the fight against corruption. There was a consensus that we supported him having more time to finish his work”
The Party insists the move merely aligns the presidency with the limit-free titles of party secretary and military chief, claiming “the masses” unanimously demanded the removal of term limits.
However the proposal was kept secret until it was revealed in a state media report on February 25, a week before the legislature’s opening session.
The party later disclosed that Xi had presided over a meeting of the Politburo in September during which the leadership decided to revise the constitution. The party then sought proposals and opinions, culminating in a decision in late January to introduce constitutional amendments at the NPC.
“Xi Jinping has presided over so many important projects such as economic reforms and the fight against corruption. There was a consensus that we supported him having more time to finish his work,” said Dou Yanli, a delegate from eastern Shandong province.
The hastiness of moves to cement Xi’s position has triggered a backlash online, prompting censors to block phrases such as “I disagree” and “emperor” and the image of Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon bear to which Xi has been compared.
Beijing-based activist Hu Jia, who claims authorities forced him to leave the capital during the congress, called the amendment “illegal.” “Xi asked all people to obey the constitution, and then used the amendment to place himself above it,” he said. “He used the constitution as the ultimate legal weapon that binds officials and all citizens.”
With reporting from Agence France-Presse.